SHIRLEY SAYS: ON DRIVERS AND DRIVING

I’ve had a truly wonderful driving career, and even if I could go back and change a few things, I doubt if I would.  It’s not that I’ve 6_10_2009_shirley.jpggotten philosophical as the years have gone by, but I guess that when you get right down to it, you live your life the best you can, and take the good times with the bad.

Everyone’s heard the stories of how difficult it was for me to become a driver, so I won’t bother repeating those yet again.  I will admit, however, that I do appreciate it when women drivers acknowledge me as having paved the way for them.  I’d love to say that I’m glad I did it, but in all honesty, when I was going through it I never considered the long term picture.  You never see yourself as a “pioneer,” and that certainly wasn’t my intention at the time.  All I wanted to do was drive a race car without being hassled because I was a woman.  Now, looking back on it all, I’m glad that I went through all of the crap just so today’s women drivers don’t have to.  Well, maybe “glad” wasn’t the right word.  I went through it so others don’t have to, but from the conversations I’ve had with some of the younger drivers out there I get the feeling that some of them have been subjected to additional scrutiny just because they’re girls.

I’ve had a truly wonderful driving career, and even if I could go back and change a few things, I doubt if I would.  It’s not that I’ve shirley_says.jpggotten philosophical as the years have gone by, but I guess that when you get right down to it, you live your life the best you can, and take the good times with the bad.

Everyone’s heard the stories of how difficult it was for me to become a driver, so I won’t bother repeating those yet again.  I will admit, however, that I do appreciate it when women drivers acknowledge me as having paved the way for them.  I’d love to say that I’m glad I did it, but in all honesty, when I was going through it I never considered the long term picture.  You never see yourself as a “pioneer,” and that certainly wasn’t my intention at the time.  All I wanted to do was drive a race car without being hassled because I was a woman.  Now, looking back on it all, I’m glad that I went through all of the crap just so today’s women drivers don’t have to.  Well, maybe “glad” wasn’t the right word.  I went through it so others don’t have to, but from the conversations I’ve had with some of the younger drivers out there I get the feeling that some of them have been subjected to additional scrutiny just because they’re girls.

There’s been a licensing procedure on the books for years, of course, but the one thing that’s never been written down is the need for racing experience before one takes on the top classes in drag racing.  Personally, I think there ought to be something written down, some “rule” that requires an aspiring Top Fuel or Funny Car driver to spend a certain amount of time in the lower classes.  Someone else will have to figure out what that amount of time is – or more correctly stated – what the number of races one should be required to compete in in the lower classes is before one is allowed to run in the fuel categories.



 

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If you take a really close look at the best drivers we have today – and believe me, I have – you’ll see that the best of them did work their way up through the ranks before they became professionals.  Or, if they didn’t work their way up through the ranks, they came along at a time when match racing was flourishing, or open shows were going on all the time.  You know, John Force didn’t win all of those championships because of Austin Coil, although he certainly helped.  John won those titles because of the racing he did 30 years ago at Orange County, Irwindale, Pocatello, Puyallup, Spokane and God knows where else.  He learned how to become a champion by learning how to get his junker Funny Cars down some of the most horrifying examples of drag strips you can imagine.

There are very few natural drivers.  The late Lucille Lee was one of them.  She was an amazing woman.  One day she was a secretary in an office and the next she was a Top Fuel dragster driver, and a damn good one.  I don’t know how she did it, but she did.  She wasn’t one of my closest friends, but I had a lot of respect for what she was able to accomplish.  She never got caught up in the rivalry the media tried to create between us, and neither did I.  How could I find fault with a woman who never had a harsh word for me, and who could obviously drive the hell out of her car?  Believe me, I didn’t think much of the guy who ran her car, but that had nothing to do with her – and he’s gone now, too.

I think Antron Brown is another natural.  You could argue that he came up from the Pro Stock bike class, and I don’t know about you, but it would scare the hell out of me to be riding on a motorcycle at 190 miles an hour!

I know when Whit Bazemore was competing on a regular basis he was constantly talking about the need for drivers to spend a certain number of races in slower cars before they were allowed to step up into the pro categories, but nobody paid any attention.  Maybe that’s because there were never any “rules” requiring that, and nobody wanted to rock the boat by suggesting it was time there were.  Personally, I think that time has long past, but who am I to complain?

One time at the Denver race Whit – who we all know wouldn’t keep his mouth shut if he thought there was something wrong, and I loved him for that willingness to just shout it out there – complained to Graham Light about a local Colorado Funny Car driver who was making his one appearance of the year.  Whit had to run the guy in qualifying, and he questioned why he, or anyone else for that matter, who was racing full time for a championship, should have to risk it all against a guy who hadn’t made a pass down the track in over a year.  The answer he got was that his opponent had a license, his car had passed tech, so he was “qualified” to race.

I’m with Whit in situations like that.  Having a license is not necessarily having the experience to race side-by-side with someone else.

 


 

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Look at how drivers like Shelly Anderson and Ashley Force-Hood got to the top classes.  They worked their way up there through competing in slower cars, cars that gave them the experience they needed to safely and correctly handle Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars.  

John Force could have let Ashley drive a Funny Car from the second she qualified for a license, but he didn’t let that happen until he felt she’d gained enough experience in the alcohol dragster.  Then and only then did he let her step up into the “big” car.  And now look at how well she’s doing.

Brandon Bernstein and Morgan Lucas are good drivers in dragsters simply because of the lessons they learned in slower cars, and everyone is the better off for it.  Now, when someone like Larry Dixon (who also spent a lot of time in alcohol dragsters) comes up against one of those guys he’s not worrying about what they might do.  He knows they’ll handle their cars like pros.

The same can’t be said for everyone who’s licensed to be out there – and if you think I’m going to name names you’re crazy.  I’ve had enough of being flamed for voicing my opinions, so I’ll just relate a few stories.  You can try and figure out who I’m talking about on your own, and just take my word for it – I’m not going to admit to anything.  My plan is to deny, deny and then deny again!

I know for a fact that a few years ago there was a new driver out there who drove across the centerline under full power at least three times in national event competition – and didn’t even know he’d done it.  When he was told by his team that he had he was surprised to hear it.  More recently another driver has done the same thing, and more than once, and again apparently without realizing it.

I’ll get arguments on this, but I think when something like that happens, someone, either the team owner, the NHRA or yes, even the sponsor, needs to step in and say, "We need to stop and think this over."  Maybe Driver X needs a little more seasoning in the lower classes.  But is that going to happen?  I doubt it.  Not until some licensed yet clearly inexperienced driver does something so outrageous, so dangerous that it can’t be ignored.

Last story.  You’ll be able to figure out who I’m talking about by the story, but I don’t care.  Years ago this Funny Car driver was making a run at the Gatornationals in the left lane.  He immediately struck the tires on the launch, and never lifted as he smoldered the tires past the Tree, turned right and center punched the guardrail, vaulting into the photo area upside down.  He was lucky no one was killed – other than his car.  A few months later he was running at the Springnationals in Columbus, and after watching his car sashay from one lane to the other all the way to the finish line, Steve Gibbs went down to his pit area and informed him that his race was over.  Now, I’m not sure of the timing of this one, but I’ve seen the photo.  The guy was match racing a jet car at Englishtown, and started in the left lane.  He smoked the tires immediately, turned right, directly in front of the jet car right past the Tree.  The jet had the afterburner going, of course, and the poor guy driving the jet ended up center punching the Funny Car.  In the photo I’ve seen all four tires on the jet car are smoking as he nailed the brakes, but the afterburner is still throwing out fire.

Now, here’s the question.  This was obviously an extreme case of someone who probably never should have been allowed to drive, but can anyone in drag racing take a chance on a driver who has a license but lacks real racing experience, or at least demonstrates that they don’t have enough experience?

I shouldn’t have to bother answering that. - – Shirley Muldowney

 

Shirley Muldowney is a four-time champion (3 NHRA, 1 AHRA), and was the first woman to be licensed to drive a Top Fuel dragster.  Her 18 NHRA national event victories are the most ever by a female nitro racer. Muldowney earned both Person of the Year and the prestigious Ollie Award as part of the All-Star Drag Racing Team program, and is a member of the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, the Motorsports Hall of Fame, the Hot Rod Magazine Hall of Fame and both the Michigan and New York State Halls of Fame. – Ed.

 

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